Why are suspected cases of child maltreatment referred by educators so often unsubstantiated?

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Child Abuse and Neglect, 38(1): 1-10

School professionals have a unique vantage point for identifying child maltreatment and they are a frequent source of referral to child protective services. Disturbingly, past studies have found that maltreatment concerns reported by educators go unsubstantiated by child protective services at much higher rates than suspected maltreatment reported by other professionals. This study explores whether there are systematic differences in the characteristics of cases reported by educators as compared to other professionals and examines whether such variation might account for differences in investigation outcome. Analyses were based on 7,725 cases of suspected maltreatment referred by professionals to child protective services from the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect – 2003 a national database on the characteristics of children and families investigated by child protective services. School professionals were responsible for 35.8% of professional referrals. Reports by educators were much more likely to be unsubstantiated (45.3%) than those by other professionals (28.4%) in subsequent child protective investigation. Cases reported by educators were found to contain significantly more child risk factors (e.g., child emotional and behavioural problems) and fewer caregiver and family risk factors (e.g., caregiver mental health problem, single parent family) than cases reported by other professionals. Even controlling for these differences, educator-reported concerns were still 1.84, 95% CI [1.41, 2.40] times as likely to be unsubstantiated as reports from other professionals. Contrary to the notion that educators are mostly reporting non-severe cases, suspected/substantiated cases reported by school professionals were more likely to be judged as chronic and more likely to involve families with a previous child protection history. Results are concerning for the capacity of the education and child protection systems to work together to meet their shared goal of promoting healthy child development. Additional research is needed on the way in which child risks and problems influence child protective service, particularly in the context of chronic abuse and neglect and lack of availability of child and family mental health interventions. Potential problems with credibility of school professionals as reporters of child maltreatment concerns also warrant further investigation.

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